A moving portrait of Anne Sullivan Macy, teacher of Helen Keller—and a complex, intelligent woman worthy of her own spotlight
After many years, historian and Helen Keller expert Kim Nielsen realized that she and her peers had failed Anne Sullivan Macy. While Macy is remembered primarily as Helen Keller's teacher and a straightforward educational superhero, the real story of this brilliant, complex, and misunderstood woman has never been completely told. Beyond the Miracle Worker seeks to correct this oversight, presenting a new tale about the wounded but determined woman and her quest for a successful, meaningful life.
Born in 1866 to poverty-stricken Irish immigrants, Macy suffered part of her childhood in the Massachusetts State Almshouse at Tewksbury. Seeking escape, in love with literature, and profoundly stubborn, she successfully fought to gain an education at the Perkins School for the Blind. She went on to teach Helen Keller, who became a loyal and lifelong friend. As Macy floundered with her own blindness, ill health, depression, and marital strife in her later years, she came to lean on her former student for emotional, physical, and economic support.
Based on privately held primary source material—including materials at both the American Foundation for the Blind and the Perkins School for the Blind—Beyond the Miracle Worker is revelatory and absorbing, unraveling one of the best known and least understood friendships of the twentieth century.
After writing two books about Helen Keller, historian Nielsen (The Radical Lives of Helen Keller) vowed she "would never again write anything even remotely related to her." Fortunately, she couldn't help herself: upon reviewing the letters of Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, Nielsen "became convinced had shortchanged the woman known only as the teacher of Helen Keller." Through Sullivan's correspondence and notes, Nielsen remedies this lack with a "lightly fictionalized" autobiography drawing on the written impressions of Keller and others. Nielsen devotedly chronicles Sullivan's emergence as an opinionated and intelligent if troubled woman who was born poor, afflicted early on with a debilitating eye disease and abandoned to an almshouse after her mother's death. Luck and innate ability plucked her out of the asylum and placed her in the classroom. But Nielsen concedes that Sullivan's relationship with Keller took center stage in both the public consciousness and private life. Citing historical uncertainty, Nielsen self-consciously skims over Sullivan's early teaching methods, including that iconic moment at the water pump the very moment we all wonder about. 4 b&w photos.
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Most books about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan focus on Helen and the miracle of her learning to communicate. This book is completely focused on Anne Sullivan Macy, from her early life in an impoverished Irish family, discarded, along with her younger brother, Jimmie, by her father after the death of her mother from TB. How she managed to pull herself together, surviving Jimmie's death, becoming a strong and yet dependent woman, are just the beginning of this story. During her life, she and Helen slowly changed places, as Helen became the strong one, and Annie became the disabled woman who needed Helen's guiding hand. Despite her breakthrough in education of the deaf and blind child, and all it brought her in early accolades, Anne Sullivan never felt deserving of the honors that came her way, and yet felt she never received enough credit for what she did. (And in the latter, she was correct.)
A very engrossing read, at times heavy in its reliance on speculation, but otherwise well documented, the story of Teacher's life takes us from just after the Civil War to a time when women were speaking their minds. Through it all, Anne Sullivan, an early feminist, never backed down to man or woman, and demanded her due or found a way to finagle it. The author's shining a light on her, and at the same time, showing us a very human light on Helen Keller and others in their world, makes the story whole.